For East End families who fish, the first Monday in November — opening day for bay scallops in New York State waters — is a ritual not to be missed.
This year Shelter Island resident John Tehan was joined by his son Michael, who lives in Cutchogue. They left Congdons Creek on the east side of Shelter Island around 7:30 a.m. facing stiff winds and rain most of the day and fetched up on the other side of the Island nine hours later, wet and tired, but still speaking to each other.
They unloaded bushel bags of scallops in a parking lot on Bridge Street several miles away from their truck.
Shelter Island bayman John Kotula and his daughter Jillian left Congdons Creek before dawn on Nancy’s Devotion, which is usually one of the first boats to return on the morning of opening day. But this year, father and daughter didn’t pull up to unload until after 1:30 p.m.
As they lifted damp burlap sacks full of enormous scallops, Jillian helpfully pointed out that if her father had taken her suggestion to go to Noyack in the first place, they wouldn’t have wasted time in the northwest, and the low tide that was causing them to hoist the bags four feet from the deck of the boat to the back of the pickup would have been on their side.
The captain did not argue the point.
The Kotulas headed home, where they would be joined by the rest of the family, armed with scallop knives, ready to shuck for as long as it took.
Bay scallop harvests have always been cyclical, but were once worth over a $1 million to East End commercial fishermen, even in down years. Environmental factors, such as runoff from fertilizers and antiquated septic systems have hurt the fishery during some recent years. But with improvements in water quality and a successful and ongoing reseeding program, the scallop population has gradually rebounded. Last year accounted for $1.57 million of revenue, the highest value harvest in New York since the 1994 harvest of $1.76 million.
Discussing the lessons of the day in the late afternoon at the Congdons Creek town dock, the general consensus of the scallopers, including those who had ventured out as well as those who were gathering intel for later, was that Noyack had scallops.
Opening scallops, which must be done as soon as possible after they are caught, can be more work than catching them. Bayman Sawyer Clark, 20, who had his 10 bushels limit by 10:30 a.m., was grateful for an assist with opening from his grandmother Ann, who was pretty sure Sawyer knew how to open scallops before he got his license to fish as a preschooler.
“Just catching them is easy,” he said. “It’s standing there for 10 hours opening that’s hard.”
Charlie Manwaring would have liked to buy even more Peconic bay scallops from baymen for Southold Fish Market on Monday, “The size of the shells, the meats, are beautiful,” he said.
He brightened when asked about his ace crew of scallop openers. “I actually got my old crew back from last year,” he said. “That’s the hardest part. It takes a lot of time to open them.”
Mr. Manwaring said it’s too soon to draw conclusions about the season based on a very windy first day. “It’s not a good account of what is to come,” he said. “A lot of guys didn’t go today.”
Since the number of scallops that made it into his store on opening day was down from last year, Mr. Manwaring set the price for the first day at $20 a pound, higher than last year.
He said scallop counts might be lower due to the wind that turned some scallopers back and drove seas that gave others a drenching.
“The east wind was not our friend,” he added.
Survey says scallop numbers trending up
For 14 years, marine biologists have inspected the same 20 underwater sites from Flanders Bay in the West to Orient in the East twice a year, counting and measuring bay scallops at each site to document population changes.
In the October 2018 survey, numbers of adult scallops were roughly the same as 2017, which was the most valuable harvest in two decades. Even better, the numbers for seed scallops were much higher than last year, and since these are the scallops that will spawn in spring, and be harvested next fall, there is reason to hope for a strong harvest in 2019.
Professor Stephen Tettelbach of Long Island University and his team made another positive observation during the October dives. They documented growth rings in some mature scallops that indicate they are the result of a second spawn in fall 2017, and could fuel more population growth if these middle-aged scallops live to spawn again in 2019.